Report documents abuses in Oregon prison

Grey sky looms over prison barbed wire and watchtowers
Abuse and Neglect at Oregon Penitentiary

Disability Rights Oregon released a scathing report May 4 of the Oregon State Penitentiary’s Behavioral Health Unit, accusing state officials of systematically violating the rights of inmates with mental illness.

“Even in prison, there are limits to how harshly we should treat people, especially those whose behaviors are driven by severe mental illness,” DRO Executive Director, Bob Joondeph said in a news release. “People with the same clinical needs are successfully treated in the state hospital. Our society would not tolerate the regular use of isolation, violence and neglect of people with serious mental illness in any other environment.”

Similar to many other states, as many as half of Oregon’s prison inmates have mental illness, as admitted by the Oregon State Department of Corrections.

In the report, DRO highlights three overriding concerns with the treatment of this population in the BHU unit.

First, the report details how many inmates are forced into solitary confinement, where they are often only given the opportunity to shower or participate in recreational activities once or twice a week.

“For some time, BHU prisoners have not been provided with any practical possibility of being out of their cells for more than one hour a day,” the report states. “They are thus forced to live in solitary confinement for months or years without adequate access to the care that would allow them to avoid repeated cycles of psychological isolation, decompensation, and punishment.

“Those repeated cycles endanger everyone who lives or works in the unit.”

Second, DRO argues that the state is medically neglecting the inmates by failing to provide many necessary mental health services. Specifically, the report states, many inmates are only observed by mental health professionals a few times per year. In most cases, these examinations are done with no promise that mental health information will be kept confidential.

Third, the report asserts that prison staff regularly uses unnecessary force against inmates. Specifically, the report describes how prison guards use Tasers, pepper spray, riot gear and restraint chairs when confronting situations that should first be engaged by mental health professionals.

DRO provides a range of recommendations in the report. In regard to solitary confinement, DRO calls on the state to allow all inmates to spend a minimum of five hours per day outside of the cell, participating in structured activities.

In addition, DRO urges an increase in mental health professionals at the facility and the implementation of a policy of 30-minunte cool down periods prior to forcible removals of inmates from jail cells.

“BHU prisoners and the past and present BHU mental health employees who spoke with us were consistent in their belief that many BHU prisoners have been subjected to the practical equivalent of torture during their often very long stays in the unit,” the report states. “The conditions that they describe undermine the health and well-being of the prisoners.”

Disability Rights Oregon and Disability Rights Washington, which operates this Galaxy website, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.